Bewitching the Highlander (Preview)
July 10, 1662
Malcom sat near the window, gazing out into the fields while watching the low hanging clouds and the sheepdogs running through the greenery in the distance. Once again, he wasn’t able to sleep. Another night of rest wasted on old memories now long passed. It had been too long since he last slept through the night, often haunted by ghosts. His nights were filled with tossing and turning as he tried to fight memories insisting on tormenting him. On nights when he couldn’t close his eyes, he would stare at the ceiling wondering what he did wrong to deserve this unending pain.
When was I last in those fields? Malcom wondered. His body ached from lack of sleep and his mind was sluggish. He couldn’t keep track of the duties a laird was supposed to complete and spent most of his time locked inside this room, gazing at the fields he once used to run in. Surely, he had gone some time this year to meet with the village leaders, but he couldn’t remember the discussions. He couldn’t remember how much crop the lands yielded the previous years. His thoughts were distracted, lingering on screams he couldn’t shake; on the blood staining the sheets and Aileen’s lifeless eyes gazing up at him while their newborn son screamed for his dead mother. They had pledged their lives to each other. They were to grow old together and tease each other on how many grey hairs they found, or who had the most wrinkles. But now five years later, Malcom found himself alone with the past and what could have been haunting him every night and day.
Malcom shuddered and ground his teeth against those memories, focusing his attentions on the dogs herding sheep while a young boy watched on. Aileen had loved watching the dogs. She thought they were graceful and believed they were dancing with the sheep. Malcom had, of course, laughed at her. Dogs dancing with sheep? Who would have ever thought?
But that was Aileen.
She had seen the beauty in everything. If it rained, and it so often did, he would find her dancing, laughing while twirling her arms around and saying it was the essence of life. On a sunny day, she would insist they eat their meals out in the fields. He remembered how she would angle her head towards the light, enjoying its warmth, not at all concerned about the freckles littering the bridge of her nose. Many thought her strange, but Malcom believed she was the light in his life. His gaze turned to the stones surrounding the window, remembering how Aileen would sit next to it, gazing out into the same fields while stroking her swollen belly.
And now she was gone.
She had left him alone in this world to fend for their son. And her screams still haunted him. They still echoed through the halls; the halls he waited in while she was birthing their son, Finnegan. Malcom closed his eyes against the memories, pushing those thoughts away.
There was a knock at the door and he stood, angling his chair back to the table and moving to open the door. In the hall stood Dalilah, her blue eyes glistening with worry while she ran her hand through her dark strands.
“Brother, Finnegan has worsened,” she said, her voice trembling. She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “I thought it was just a little chill, but now he has a fever. I don’t know what to do.”
Malcom leaned against the door. His brows furrowed in worry while he raked a hand through his dark hair. Dalilah had been taken with Finnegan the moment he was born and she had seen to his health, becoming a mother-figure to him after Aileen had passed. Malcom had hated himself for it, knowing he should be there more, but he found it difficult looking at his son, who reminded him of Aileen. He couldn’t help but worry Finnegan would leave just like his mother.
Now, being faced with that possibility, he felt even worse.
“Have ye called for Gavin?”
Dalilah shook her head. “He’s away,” she sniffed. “He was called to a neighboring village to help with bone setting.”
Malcom frowned. “Bone setting?” he asked, his hands fisting at his sides. “Why is our healer being called away for bone setting.”
Dalilah nibbled her bottom lip, her gaze sliding to the floor. “I do not know,” she whispered. “That is all Luther told me.”
Malcom nodded, yet he still wasn’t pleased by the answer. He slammed his chamber’s door closed and followed Dalilah through the halls. Several servants carrying baskets of fabrics to be washed paused at his sight, their gazes widening before sweeping into a low bow. Malcom sighed. He knew it wasn’t often he left his rooms, but he didn’t think it warranted a stare from those who served him.
They turned the corner, finding Luther, standing outside Finnegan’s quarters as if he were guarding the crown jewels. Luther swept into a deep bow when his gaze met Malcom’s before standing.
“I’m so sorry, my laird,” said Luther, looking worried. His gaze flickered to the closed door Finnegan was residing behind before he sighed, shaking his head. “It makes no sense. The boy was fine last night.”
Dalilah nodded. “It was just a chill,” she said, her voice trying to remain calm, yet Malcom noted the slight shrill to it.
“I really should return to my duties,” said Luther, which made Malcom grimace inwardly as he knew his second in command had too much on his plate. Luther was managing the castle, the lands, the villagers, everything that should’ve been Malcom’s duties. “But I wanted to be here, just to make sure Finnegan would be well.”
“How is he?” asked Malcom, glancing at the door and not knowing if he should enter. He wasn’t worried about disease. So many times he wished he had caught something in order to join his wife. There were times he contemplated taking his own life, yet he knew he couldn’t leave Finnegan alone.
No, he was worried he would break down again and he couldn’t do that in front of Luther.
He couldn’t stand knowing another man thought him completely broken. Malcom knew what the servants whispered when they thought he wasn’t listening. He knew they thought he was possessed by demons or haunted by the ghost of his deceased wife. He didn’t want to add to the gossip.
“Ye should see for yerself,” said Dalilah, throwing open the door and grabbing his wrist, nearly dragging him inside. “See yer son, Brother. Please,” she begged, tears streaming down her cheeks. “It might be yer last time.”
Malcom closed his eyes, tempted to turn around, but he allowed Dalilah to pull him inside. Inhaling deeply, he blinked his eyes open, looking around at the dimly lit room. The drapes were drawn and the young boy lying in the vast bed was shrouded in darkness. Malcom could hear his rasping breath and he was reminded of another time he was pulled into a room.
Malcom straightened his shoulders. He wouldn’t turn back now. He wouldn’t be a coward. He strode towards his son, sitting on the edge of his bed, watching the subtle rise and fall of his chest.
“Finnegan,” he whispered into the darkness, but his call went unnoticed.
Malcom reached a hand towards the small boy’s head, stroking back the dark locks he found there. In the shadows he could just make out the boy’s sleeping face. Even in the lack of light, Malcom could see how pale the child was. He could see how the boy shivered. Malcom pulled the blankets around Finnegan’s shoulders, biting back tears threatening to fall as he realized this was
the last remains of Aileen.
And he could lose her all over again.
“How far away is the village?” Malcom whispered.
He glanced over his shoulder, finding Dalilah shaking her head while she lifted the candle, bringing it close to Finnegan’s head so she could get a better view. She pressed her palm against the boy’s cheek and sobbed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, pressing her hand against her mouth to stop another cry. “I should have taken better care of him. I’m so sorry, Brother.”
Malcom closed his eyes. “None of this is yer fault, Dalilah.” He sighed, his hands fisting at his side as he whispered the words he hated most, “It’s my fault.” Malcom closed his eyes, fighting back the tears threatening to come. “I should have been the one watching out for him, Dalilah. I’m his father.”
“Gavin is in the village in the west. It’s too far. Finnegan could…could…”
“Do we know of any other healers?”
Malcom didn’t hear a response and when he opened his eyes, he found his sister with a hand over her face, her shoulders shaking as she cried silently.
“Papa,” a raspy voice whispered.
Malcom turned, finding blue eyes watching him. As much as Finnegan reminded Malcom of Aileen, he was his father’s spitting image with dark hair and matching blue eyes. It was alarming for Malcom to see how the boy took after him.
Malcom smiled at Finnegan while wrapping his arms around the small boy and cradling him in his arms. The boy nuzzled his shoulders. “Everything will be fine, my son,” he whispered before kissing the child’s head and pulling away.
Dalilah set the candle next to the boy’s head and repositioned the blankets around him. “Get some rest,” she whispered while stroking his cheek. “Ye will feel better after some rest.”
Finnegan nodded and closed his eyes, his breath evening once more as sleep claimed him.
Malcom stood and grabbed his sister’s elbow, tugging her through the door and closing it softly with a click. Luther straightened from the stone wall he had been leaning against.
“Would ye like for me to send for Gavin?” asked Luther.
Malcom shook his head. “Nae,” he said, earning a sob from Dalilah. He clamped his hands behind his back and began pacing. “That would take too long.”
“We must do something,” Dalilah cried, flinging herself at her brother and clinging to his front. “He’s too young, Malcom.”
Malcom nodded while gathering her hands together, holding them gently. “Have we tried blood letting?”
Dalilah shook her head. “He’s too young. Too little. He’ll…”
Malcom nodded once more and dropped her hands, continuing his pacing back and forth. “There must be another healer,” he said. “Surely there is.”
“I would not trust the village healers, my laird,” said Luther. “They would be useless compared to Gavin.”
Malcom paused in his pacing as his eyes met those of a young servant girl. Her brown hair was braided and bound to one side and she quickly dropped her brown gaze as soon as she met Malcom’s. She stepped forth, balancing a tray carrying a bowl and a pitcher in her hands while she grimaced at the stone floor.
“Forgive me, my laird, I did not mean to pry,” she said while lowering her head. “I heard the wee child was ill and wanted to offer him some stew and water.”
Dalilah stepped quickly, taking the tray from the servant’s arms. “That is very kind of ye,” she said. “Thank ye.”
The servant girl shuffled from foot to foot, her fingers picking at each other while she stood before Malcom.
“Is that all?” asked Malcom, wondering what more the servant girl could possibly want and if she would be spreading more gossip around the castle.
“Nae, my laird,” she said, a slight tremble in her voice. “I mean…well…” she grimaced and Malcom had to keep himself from demanding she speak.
“Well, what is it, lass?” asked Luther, crossing his arms and staring at the girl as if she were a bug he would like to crunch under his boot.
“Well, I may know of a healer,” she said, glancing up shyly. “She has healed many before. She’s even helped my grandmother when she caught a cold. She hails from the village in the East.”
“Why, that isnae more than a couple hours ride,” said Dalilah, her lips twitching upwards into a wide smile. “A rider could be there and back by nightfall.”
Luther stepped towards the servant, his gaze darkening. The girl hunched her shoulders, stepping away from him and nearly hitting the wall. “What is this healer’s name, lass?” he asked, his voice low and menacing.
“Her name is Fiona Duncan,” the servant said quickly, her shoulders trembling as Luther towered over her.
“Fiona Duncan?” Luther repeated while turning on his heel, setting wide horrified eyes on Malcom. “My laird, I have heard that name before. She is naething more than a witch.”
“A witch?” Dalilah breathed.
“I know she’s killed before,” said Luther. “I heard it mysel from the village leader, Tavish. I beg ye, my laird, don’t call for her. She will surely do more harm than good.”
Malcom pushed Luther aside and approached the servant girl, who still quivered, her gaze lingering on Luther as if he would pounce.
“It’s alright,” he said, offering a hand to the girl. “Don’t be frightened, lass.”
The girl’s gaze turned to Malcom’s and her shoulders stilled as she gazed into his kind blue eyes. “What he says is true, my laird,” she said. “She is a witch, but she may be able to help the lad. She did not kill my grandmother.”
Malcom nodded and the girl released his hand, quickly turning around and walking briskly down the hall and towards the staircase.
“Ye’re not actually considering this?” Luther asked while following Malcom as he paced. “She will kill us all if ye invite her here.”
Malcom stroked his chin. “It’s the only way,” he said. “Gavin is too far away. He won’t be back in several days. Finnegan could be dead by then.”
Luther scoffed. “It’s just a chill.”
“Nae,” said Dalilah, “it’s more than that. Please, Brother. Send for her and I will keep my eyes fixed to her.” Malcom leveled his gaze to his sister, watching her straighten her spine and jut out her chin, reminding him of what their mother did to their father when she insisted on having her way. “I won’t let her out of my sight.”
“And what do ye plan to do when she starts whispering her incantations?” asked Luther, throwing his hands into the air. “Grab her? Throw her out the window?”
“I will tell my brother,” she said. “I will tell ye.” Her hands slid against Luther’s and she pulled him to her, gazing up at him with sweet adoration. “Please, if ye care for me at all, ye will let my brother send for her.”
Luther sighed before offering a small smile. He stroked a lock of hair away from her face before turning towards Malcom. “Shall I send a rider for the witch?” he asked while cocking his head to the side.
Malcom stroked his chin. Luther was right in that he could be bringing misfortune to his family, inviting a witch to save his son, but he knew he couldn’t let his son just lie there and die. He would not be able to cope with the loss of his son. Aileen had suffered and fought to bring him into this world. Malcom needed to suffer and fight to ensure he remained in it.
He lifted his head and met Luther’s gaze before giving him a curt nod. “Yes. Send for the witch.”
“What happened?” Fiona asked numbly while looking through her jars filled with herbs.
Just moments ago, Ewan and Caelan had thrown open her door with Graeme in their arms, who was bleeding from his stomach. The boy wasn’t more than sixteen summers and his tortured moans stifled the room as Fiona searched for the mushroom she had recently turned into a powder.
“I-I don’t know,” said Ewan while wiping the grime from his face with his cap. “All I heard was his yelling and Caelan and I came running.”
Fiona stepped onto her tiptoes, finding the powdered mushroom behind the root jar. She frowned at the dwindling amount before returning to Graeme, making a note in the back of her head that she would need to go gathering herbs later on in the day. She leaned over Graeme, pushing away the bloodied tunic to have a closer look at his wound before dipping the cloth in whiskey, and dabbing the puckered skin.
“Get her away from me,” Graeme cried out, jerking away from Fiona as his fingers gripped the mattress.
Fiona shook her head, glancing over her shoulder at Ewan and Caelan towering over her. “Can ye please hold him down for me? I cannot clean the wound if he continues bucking like a bull.”
Ewan immediately stepped forward but was stopped by Caelan’s hand on his shoulder. “Are ye sure about this, Ewan?” he whispered, glancing back and forth between Fiona and Caelan. “Ye have heard the stories. And the boy doesn’t want her touching him. She could be sucking the life from him as we speak.”
Ewan rolled his eyes, jerking his shoulder away from Caelan before stalking forward and pushing Graeme’s shoulders down to the mattress. He nodded at Fiona as he put his weight against his body. “Ye save him, ye hear me?”
Fiona nodded and returned to cleaning the wound. She wiped the blood, trying to be as gentle as possible as she cleaned the grime from Graeme’s skin. Caelan sighed, coming forth to hold down Graeme’s boots, which kicked out at every swipe of cloth against his skin. Tears dripped down Graeme’s face as he gazed up at the ceiling, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
“There, there,” Ewan whispered against Graeme’s hair. “Ye will be alright. Soon we’ll be drinking ales and ye will be talking to that lassie ye like.”
Graeme’s cries lessened as she continued to clean and Ewan carefully moved his hands from him, stalking towards the table and dumping his body into the chair behind her. Caelan removed his hands from the boy’s boots, yet she felt him still at her side, watching her, waiting for her to sing her enchantments to seduce the boy, or poison him with her herbs.
Fiona ignored him. She focused on her work, reminding herself she was not a witch, she was a good person. But it was common these days, that villagers would come seeking help, and then question her actions, worry if she would slip them something and they would become the next offering to the Devil.
Fiona blinked back unshed tears as the little girl’s name came to mind. She rested the cloth against the bucket and turned around searching for her jar of mushroom powder.
“I’ll need to stitch him,” she said while dabbing the powder onto Graeme’s skin.
Ewan shifted in his chair. “Will he live?” he asked while stroking his ginger beard, eyeing both Fiona and Graeme, now lying very still in the cot.
Fiona smiled, giving him a soft nod. Ewan sighed in relief, his head lolling back as he praised the Lord above. “But he will need to keep the wound clean,” she added while grabbing a needle near the cot and dipping it in whiskey. “Nae work for at least five days. And there could be fever.”
“Fever?” she heard Caelan’s appalled voice over the top of her head as she felt him slowly rise at her side. She could feel his scowl digging a hole in the back of her head.
Graeme flinched as she poked the needle and thread through his skin, working deftly and as gently as possible. “I will give ye a tea for the fever,” she said. “It shouldn’t last more than a few days.”
“Thank ye,” said Ewan.
Graeme whimpered, now watching Fiona’s needlework with a pinched expression.
“And if it lasts longer?” asked Caelan.
Fiona turned to him, seeing the hate in his eyes as he watched her. “If he worsens, please come to me,” she said, turning back to Ewan. “But I assure ye, rest and the herbs will help with his recovery.”
Ewan scowled at his friend yet said nothing more as he helped Graeme stand. The boy whimpered, his legs wobbling as Caelan threw his other arm over his shoulder.
A knock thudded at the door as Fiona reached for the herbs in her jar. “Come in,” she called while smashing the leaves into a fine powder before setting them into a small pouch.
When she lifted her gaze, her heart plummeted, finding Tavish standing in the doorway with a tall lean man, cloaked in a blue and green plaid pinned to his shoulder. She did not recognize the man, however, she knew Tavish wouldn’t bring just anyone to her door. She handed the pouch to Ewan as she eyed the stranger up and down, taking note of the urgency in his gaze. Fiona barely took notice of the three men stumbling out her door as Tavish approached, taking a seat at her table and leaning back in the chair, watching her with shrewd eyes.
“This is Fiona Duncan,” said Tavish as he gestured towards her. “Our village’s… healer,” he said, his eyes gleaming.
Fiona dipped into a polite curtsy, yet Tavish’s choice in words was not lost on her. She knew what he truly thought of her, how he watched her shrewdly when she would leave the village to gather herbs. She knew he had spies watching her, for the safety of the people he once told her when she questioned him about it.
She knew he didn’t think of her as a healer. She knew he believed she offered Isabel to the Devil.
Fiona kept her gaze on the dirty floor as she curtsied, wishing she was a witch and could shrink herself into a small field mouse so she could run away. Or a witch so she could cast a spell to tidy her small home, feeling meek and small in front of this man who bore the laird’s pin in his plaid. As she slowly stood, placing her hands neatly in front of her, she glanced at the jars decorating her table, wishing she had at least tidied them this morning, however the influx of patients had kept her too busy.
“Fiona, the laird has summoned ye to Castle Lennoch,” said Tavish.
Fiona’s brows pinched together in confusion as she lifted her gaze, meeting Tavish’s amused grin. Why would the laird call on her? She wondered as she resumed her scrutiny of the messenger before her. Looking between Tavish and the man, she feared her worries were finally coming true. She was going to be hanged or burned. The people finally had enough of her, no matter how helpful she had tried to be; no matter how much she worked to keep her neighbors healthy and her head down.
They were coming to take her away.
“The laird’s son is ill,” said the messenger, stepping forward before kneeling in front of her.
“Ill?” Fiona breathed, unable to keep the shock from her tone. She looked up at Tavish, yet his expression was unreadable. “Surely, it’s not so bad. Why would the laird call upon me?”
“The laird’s healer is in the western villages,” said the messenger, shaking his head. “The boy will surely die before he returns.”
“But, haven’t ye tried…”
“The laird and his sister have tried everything,” the messenger said, staring up at her as if he were a beggar prostrating himself for food. “Please, ye must come with me. Ye are his only hope.”
“Me?” Fiona nearly shouted, pointing to herself as if she didn’t understand the word.
The messenger nodded, his eyes prickling with worry and hope. Fiona shook her head, turning around and grabbing a cloth, trying to busy herself with something.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot,” she said quickly while wringing the rag in her hands.
Help the laird’s son? How could she? Especially after the last time she helped a child. Nae. She could not fathom it. If the boy were to die, not only would the laird have her head but all of the village. She would never be able to return to this home again. Even if she were to escape, the people would surely burn her cottage down and all her mother and father’s handiwork in building this beautiful place would become nothing more than ash. All the memories she had of them would go up into flames.
“Please,” the messenger begged. “The boy is but five summers.”
Fiona closed her eyes as she took a deep breath to calm her pounding heart. Five summers, she thought. Nearly the same age as Isabel when she died. Fiona sniffed, dabbing at her eyes with the cloth as she remembered the small girl lying limply in Iain’s arms. She remembered the snow dotting the sky, trickling down to rest on the dead child’s face.
The screams and cries demanding they burn her.
Fiona bit back a sob as she imagined the laird’s son, lying still in bed. A son so young, suffering and yet not receiving any aid. She imagined his small pale face, sweat dripping down from his head, his gasps as he fought and struggled to breathe.
And he would die due to her selfishness; due to her need for self-preservation.
Fiona ground her teeth, knowing what she wanted to do, but she needed to stand her ground. She needed to say no. One more youth lost in her hands and she would be burned.
“Tavish, please,” she whispered, keeping her back to both men. Her shoulders slumped forward, trembling as she tried to keep herself contained, knowing she would shatter if they continued to press her. “Ye know why I cannot answer this summons.”
“Will ye give us a moment,” she heard Tavish say from behind, heard the footsteps and the door creaking closed and clicking shut.
Fiona shivered as the chair scuffed against the floor behind her followed by Tavish’s steps towards her. She bit back a sob as he grabbed her shoulder, jerking her around to face him. Her eyes prickled with unshed tears as she gazed into his dark eyes framed with greying brown hair.
“The laird has summoned ye,” Tavish said. “Do ye understand me lassie?”
Fiona sniffed and nodded.
“And when the laird summons ye, it isnae yer choice. Ye go.”
Fiona shoved her shoulder from his grip. She scowled up at him, jutting out her chin as she held his gaze. “Healer today. Witch tomorrow. Which is it Tavish?” She smiled bitterly. “Or does it depend on how ye feel when ye rise in the morning?”
Tavish shook his head, chuckling as he stepped away from her. “If ye don’t go girl, what do ye think the villagers will think?”
Fiona scoffed. “If I go and the child dies, what will they think then?”
Tavish slid his hands into his jacket pockets, eyeing her up and down before turning to the door. “It is yer choice whether or not ye choose to go.” He stopped, his hand on the door handle, glancing over his shoulder he smirked and said, “But are ye a healer lassie, or are ye not? Surely, a healer would feel some sort of pain knowing the boy should die if ye choose not to go.”
Fiona inhaled deeply as she watched Tavish leave, closing the door swiftly behind him. She felt numb, as if a strong wind had blown straight through her and rattled her bones. Her hands shook as she stared at the door, at the place the messenger and Tavish stood not long ago. It wasn’t that long ago Mrs. Baran was watching her with narrowed eyes while taking a pouch with trembling hands. It wasn’t that long ago when Caelan was scowling at her, questioning Ewan’s choice to bring Graeme to her.
Fiona recalled Ewan’s wife going into labor weeks prior and how she demanded for a midwife the next village over. She remembered the woman’s screams and shrieks of terror and pain as they waited for the midwife to arrive. She remembered going to their home in the rain, asking if they needed any aid; the fear in Ewan’s eyes and the answer on the tip of his tongue. She knew he would have permitted her entrance if not for her past; if not for his wife pleading to keep the witch from devouring the babe in her womb.
“Not from ye,” she remembered Ewan saying before he slammed the door in her face.
In the villagers’ eyes she was nothing more than a witch, the Devil’s loyal servant.
But in Fiona’s she was a healer.
A healer didn’t turn away when they were summoned. They helped; they went where they were called. Fiona’s feet moved of their own will, gathering a large brown satchel and gathering her jars of herbs, her needles and clothes, her mother’s book. She didn’t know why she was doing this when she knew it would change nothing.
Even if she did save the laird’s son, it would not change the way the villagers looked at her nor their opinion of her.
She would always be a witch in their eyes.
But would she allow them the satisfaction, knowing they had finally broken her. Would she allow this child to die, simply because the people gossiped and whispered? Would she not at least try to save the child?
Fiona knew her answer, she knew what it should’ve been right from the beginning.
Pushing her fear to the side, Fiona turned around, grabbing her cloak and satchel and striding towards the door. She threw it open, finding the messenger on his horse in the middle of the square. Tavish stood below him, talking to the man as if he were saying farewell.
Fiona ignored the villagers as she strode towards the messenger with her head held high and her shoulders back. She met Tavish’s shrewd gaze and smirk in the distance and refused to turn around. Women held back their children as they ran around one another. Young mothers held their babes to their breast, turning away and offering a prayer to the Lord above.
Fiona stopped below the messenger, meeting his wide gaze. “Alright,” she said, handing him her bag. “I’m ready.”
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